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To Make Your New Year’s Resolution Stick, Outsmart Your Teenage Brain

Here's how to change from 'knowing' to 'doing'

Face it: By next month, your New Year’s resolution will be an epic fail. Four out of five people give up by February (and let’s be honest, the fifth probably gamed the system by not making one at all). This drives you crazy if you’re the kind of person who takes pride in following through on commitments. No matter how much you struggle through a book, you refuse to give up on it—which is the only possible explanation for the fact that there are humans who have read both Finnegan’s Wake and Twilight.

The problem with resolutions is that they’re mostly things our adult brains know we should do, but we still have a teenage brain saying we don’t want to. The teenager wants to stay in bed and eat a burger. The adult knows you should go to the gym, have the salad, organize your closet, and call your parents. When the two brains duke it out, the teenager ultimately prevails. But there’s hope for the adult: outwitting the teenager with three strategies from social science (which you can do because teenagers rarely read psychology or behavioral economics).

1. Reward the teenager for adulting

If you were motivated to build a beach body or eat better, you would’ve already done it. The key is to turn the should into an enjoyable want. My colleagues gave people an iPod with riveting audiobooks of their choice, ranging from Harry Potter to The Da Vinci Code. The catch: the iPod was locked at the gym, so they could only listen if they showed up. Over the next month and a half, they averaged 27% more gym visits.

2. Make the teenager responsible for others

The great thing about your teenage brain is that it’s terrified of letting people down. No one wants to be the babysitter who gets fired twice. Erma Bombeck said it best: Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

When students thought about how math skills could benefit others—not just themselves—they finished 36% more boring math problems. When doctors and nurses were reminded that hand hygiene would protect patients—not just themselves—they washed 10% more often and used 45% more soap and gel. And I keep noticing that when I think about being a good role model for my 4-year-old son, I’m less likely to eat his Goldfish crackers off the floor.

3. Show the teenager future consequences

Your teenage brain is drawn to wants because it’s stuck in the present. If your resolution is to save more money this year, you just need a clearer view of the future you. When psychologists took people’s pictures and digitally aged them so they could see what they might look like decades later, they nearly tripled their retirement savings.

So if you want to keep a resolution, try bundling it with a tempting book and making it for others, not just yourself. And if that fails, just imagine how ignorant, lonely, and decrepit you’ll be down the road if you don’t follow through on your goals to read, connect, and exercise in 2018.

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Adam Grant is the New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals, and Option B with Sheryl Sandberg. He shares new insights each month in GRANTED, his free newsletter on work and psychology: www.adamgrant.net

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